Airport fire trucks must get to a burning plane within three minutes if they are going to save any lives. That’s the maximum response time allowed by the National Fire Protection Association, the organization that sets the standard for airport firefighters, including those working at U.S. Air Force bases. 

The survivable atmosphere inside an aircraft fuselage involved in an exterior fuel fire is limited to approximately 3 minutes if the integrity of the airframe is maintained during impact. This time could be substantially reduced if the fuselage is fractured. . . rapid fire control is critical. . .

Aircraft flown in air shows are usually smaller and less fire resistant than transport category aircraft.  At air shows fire trucks need to get to crash sites even quicker – within 60 seconds or less.

The key to getting fire trucks to a crash quickly is to station the trucks near to where an accident is most likely to occur.  Normally, that might be the end of the active runway.  But most air show crashes occur at “show center” rather than the end of the runway.  As one Travis Air Force witness put it, show center is where ‘the majority of dangerous events focus.”  At air shows, that’s where fire trucks should be waiting.

Eddie’s Accident

On May 4, Eddie Andreini was flying a routine at the Travis Air Force Base open house.  He was attempting a stunt known as an inverted ribbon cut.  Something went wrong.  Eddie’s Stearman slid upside down along the runway, coming to a stop at smack dab show center. Eddie was uninjured but was trapped inside.  A fire started almost immediately.  Air Force personnel say that they saw Eddie struggling to get out as he waited for the fire trucks to save him.  One minute passed, then two, then three.  But the crash trucks didn’t come.  When they finally did, it was too late.

What happened?

The Air Force refused to explain why it took so long for its fire trucks to reach Eddie.  So we sued it under the Freedom of Information Act.  We now have internal Air Force documents showing that the brass didn’t understand the Air Force’s own regulations.  They mistakenly believed regulations prohibited them from stationing fire trucks near show center.  So instead, the Air Force positioned the fire trucks more than a mile and a half away. 

The Travis speed limit for fire trucks is 45 mph.  So it took the first fire truck (a “Rapid Intervention Vehicle”) more than four minutes to get to Eddie.  Had the Air Force positioned even one truck at show center–as it was supposed to–firemen would have gotten to Eddie within a minute and Eddie would have been saved.

Regulations can be confusing. Was the Air Force’s mistake understandable?  Not really. The manual that Travis show organizers had in hand–and agreed to follow–makes clear that fire trucks belong at show center.  According to that manual, the personnel who were permitted in the “aerobatic box” (the area in which performers fly) included “demonstration teams and fire/rescue.” (Page 28.) The manual goes on to direct that fire trucks should be located “with immediate access to the show line” (page 34) – not a mile and a half away.

To the extent the Air Force brass was confused, the FAA cleared things up for them when, a week before the air show, it told Travis that crash trucks did indeed belong “in the box” near show center.

Our team, specifically the air ops staff, was led to believe that we could not put an emergency vehicle (or anything else) inside the Show Box at Show Center, because it was sterile and protected.  We learned that this was not correct about a week before the show after [name redacted] discussed it with [name redacted] of the FAA.  We learned that we could place airshow official vehicles or people in the aerobatic box.”

Travis had time

The Air Force’s own documents prove that Travis officials had a week before the show was to begin to correct their mistake and arrange for the trucks to be stationed at show center. But the Travis officials had already decided that the fire trucks were going to be positioned where they couldn’t be of any use to a performer.  Having made a plan, they weren’t going to change, even if it put lives at risk unnecessarily.

“I’ll say it again, I need the trucks on the runway!  I need the trucks on the runway now!”

The Travis Command Post recording is difficult to listen to. After hearing it, it’s hard to believe that Travis still tells the public that its fire department responded to the crash in an “exemplary” fashion.

(Notes:  At 2:14, one of Eddie’s crew tried to fight fire with a hand-held extinguisher.  The extinguisher was too small and was expended in seconds.  By that time, the Rapid Intervention Vehicle had not yet even left its station.  The Air Force documents do not explain why it took so long for the truck to roll.  It finally arrives on scene after the 4 minute mark.  The time stamps were placed on the photos by Air Force.)

When the engine quits just after takeoff, the pilot has few options. One is to attempt to turn around and try to land at the airport. It’s such a difficult maneuver that it’s often referred to as “the impossible turn.” I’ve written about the “impossible turn” before. AvWeb’s Paul Bertorelli takes another look at the turn in the video below. Bertorelli suggests that the turn is an option that a pilot should not write off. But it does require practice.

My advice is to practice with plenty of altitude. I’ve had two cases involving fatalities resulting from turning back after simulated engine failures during flight training.  One is here.

This animation compares what Asiana 214’s approach should have looked like to what it did look like. From the data we have, the animation appears to be fairly accurate, except the audio is not properly synchronized. (The initial transmissions are from when the aircraft was 7 miles from the runway, not several hundred feet.)

If the audio were fixed, would this animation be admissible in court?

Not in it’s current state.  It relies too much on guesswork. But once the data from the black boxes is available and the animation modified accordingly, it’s exactly the type of thing the lawyers would want to show to a jury.

Stephen Stock, an investigative reporter for NBC, talks about the hazards posed by night vision goggles improperly installed in much of the nation’s EMS helicopter fleet. I was happy to offer Stock my thoughts. The FAA refused to comment on camera.

Imagine how difficult it must be for Rand Foster to go to work each day.

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